Stolen children in Spain: los niños robados

Spain, the holiday destination par excellence. The perfect country where everything seems to be roses and moonshine. Where everyone is always smiling and happy. The country where the sun shines every day. And yet, things happened in this country that many people don’t know about. Mysterious transactions that were not allowed to see the light of day. Transactions with babies. Stolen babies. Transactions that started during Franco’s time and continued until the 1990s. A forgotten and hidden piece of Spanish history: los niños robados. And what’s worse, Spain isn’t the only country where children were stolen. It is a phenomenon that occurs in many countries and is timeless. Children were also stolen in Israel, Australia, Réunion, France and England. In 2020, children are still being taken from their parents in China.

Who or what are ‘los niños robados’?

Los niños robados or stolen children are Spanish babies or young children who were stolen from their parents. This often happened in hospitals or monasteries. Often just after deliveries or when young children became ill and had to go to the hospital. The children were then declared dead by doctors, nurses or clergy. The parents were never allowed to see the deceased children and often no death certificates were drawn up or given to the parents. Many parents were left with immense sadness and many questions.

How many children were stolen?

In Spain it is estimated that there are about 30,000 children, but there are suspicions that it could be ten times this number.

Where did the children end up?

All these children were stolen from their left-wing parents and placed with right-wing, Franco-minded families. The stolen children were placed with families not only in Spain but also in Germany, Switzerland, France and perhaps even in the Netherlands.

How long have these transactions been taking place?

These secret practices began after the Spanish Civil War and continued long after the death of dictator Franco. It is even suspected until the mid-1990s. The idea came from the Spanish army doctor Antonio Valleja Najera. He based himself on the genetic racial cleansing theories that were also used by the Nazis. The Marxist gene had to be kept to a minimum in this way.

How did these practices come to an end?

It was only in the mid-1990s that stricter adoption regulations put an end to these bizarre transactions. Thanks to the Ley de Memoria Historica de España of 2007, recognition finally came for the victims of the Civil War and the period after it. Child theft is also discussed and the ball starts rolling.

Who robbed and sold?

In April 2012, the first person was charged with stealing and selling children: Sister Maria Gómez Valbuena. Indeed, a sister. It was often nuns and priests who took the children away from their parents, but doctors and nurses also helped to change the children’s parents. The children were declared dead at birth or after hospitalization. Parents were not allowed to see the ‘corpses’ and remained in the dark about the how and why of the pretended cause of death of their baby or child.

Will the stolen children be reunited with their biological parents?

The stolen children were often too young to remember anything about their real parents. They grew up with their new parents without ever suspecting that they were not their biological parents. As more and more cases became known, more and more people started asking questions. Parents who had had a ‘dead’ baby but who had continued to ask questions all their lives. Children who were now adults and wondered if their parents were really their parents. People who had adopted a child and who wondered where this child actually came from. DNA was taken from people who had doubts and a match was sought with parents who had ‘lost’ a child or baby. So far (2020), not many parents and children have been reunited, on the one hand because there is little evidence (documents were forged, birth certificates were not drawn up), and on the other hand because many people involved have already died.

Anadir: organization that deals with the niños robados

Antonio Barroso found out he was a stolen child. He founded the Anadir association, a national association that deals with illegal adoptions and promotes the taking of DNA samples. With the help of lawyers, he tries to file lawsuits.

Why was everything so difficult?

The reason why everything started so slowly is the fact that in 1975 a pact was made to bury the past and leave it as it is. This was to speed up the restoration of democracy after Franco’s death. Everything that had happened during this period was covered up. Magistrates could not be tried and remained in post. The younger generation of magistrates and politicians does not want to simply accept this and wants to bring the truth to light. That is why things have started to make some headway from 2012 onwards, slowly but surely.

Want to read or see more about the stolen Spanish children?

The stolen children of Gerardo Soto y Koelmeijer

The book ‘The Stolen Children’ by Gerardo Soto y Koelmeijer, written in 2013, is a real eye-opener about this major social problem in Spain. The book is about a fictional person, Miguel, who one day receives a letter from his aunt stating that he has been adopted. Miguel begins a difficult search for his biological parents and gradually discovers that he could be one of the stolen children of the Franco regime. The novel form makes this dark page of Spanish history accessible to many people.

Mala gente que caminan

Anyone who speaks Spanish can read the 2006 book ‘Mala gente que caminan’ by Benjamín Prado. The title of the book is the first line of a poem by Antonio Machado. In this book the theme of stolen Spanish children is discussed and the author takes a lot of information from history books (R. Vinyes, J. Claret), from reports and memoirs (A. Cenarro, J. Martínez de Bedoya) or from testimonies of victims and left-wing militants such as Tomasa Cuevas o Juana Doña.

Niños robados

Director Salvador Calvo’s 2013 two-part TV mini-series ‘Niños robados’ tells the true-life story of two babies stolen during the 1970s and their struggles in the years that followed. The first part discusses stealing the babies. In the second part, one of the two stolen babies searches for the truth. This series can be viewed on YouTube, in Spanish.

Stolen children in other countries

Anyone who thinks that these practices only took place in Spain is wrong. In other countries around the world, children were also stolen and sold in all periods for all kinds of reasons: slavery, exploitation, sexual abuse, adoption and so on.


In Australia they speak of ‘The Stolen Generations’. About 100,000 Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were separated from their families by the government between 1910 and 1970 to assimilate them into white society. You can learn more about these transactions in the film ‘Australia’.


About 1,100 Jews of Yementian origin experienced the robbery of their babies around 1950. Here too, babies disappeared from hospitals after they were declared dead. Here too, the parents were not allowed to see the ‘corpses’. The children were adopted by parents in Israel or the United States. Other children were used as guinea pigs. People wanted to know whether Yemenis had ‘Negro blood’ and why their hearts were so strong. The number of stolen children is probably much higher here too. The 1,100 known cases are children of people who have reported the crime.

France: La Réunion

Under the rule of French General De Gaulle, around 1,600 young African children and babies were transferred from the densely populated French overseas territory of Réunion to the French mainland from 1963 onwards. This was supposedly to solve a demographic problem, as the countryside in France emptied and everyone moved to the cities. The parents and children were promised that they would be able to continue their studies in France and that they would be allowed to return to the island every holiday. However, racism, sexual abuse and exploitation became the fate of these young people from the moment they arrived in France. The Creuse department received the majority of these babies and children. De Gaulle was assisted in La Réunion by Michel Debré, ex-Prime Minister and also member of parliament on La Réunion. It was President Mitterand who put an end to these practices in 1982. It was not until 2014 that the French government issued an official apology and those affected could apply for financial compensation. Eric Duret’s 2018 French film, ‘Un mensonge oublié’ tells the story of children brought from Réunion to the Creuse department between 1963 and 1982 through a police survey.


Much the same thing happened in England from 1869 to 1967. More than 100,000 children were transported to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries to work but also to increase the British presence in the overseas territories and colonies. Orphanages and social agencies in particular moved orphans and children who only cost money to ‘better places’. However, upon arrival the reality became apparent: exploitation, sexual abuse, slavery. An official apology was issued by the Roman Catholic Church to the Forgotten Australians in 2001 and by the then Australian Prime Minister in 2009. England also later issued an official apology, but to this day only a few people have been compensated for the suffering endured.


Between 30,000 and 60,000 children are stolen in China every year. Boys earn the most and go to families without a male successor. Girls are sold as future brides. Other destinations include illegal mines, factories or the sex industry. If you want to read more about this, you can read Xue Xinran’s book: ‘Message from a Chinese mother’.

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